Real Culture: Jonathan Lethem on “Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop From Elvis to Jay Z”




EXCEPT FOR THE FEW hopeful souls who’d been waiting for the Library of America to release a Lester Bangs anthology, most readers were likely pleasantly surprised by the publication of Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop From Elvis to Jay Z. Here the august canon-polisher of the nation’s literary tradition collects pieces by Ellen Willis on Janis Joplin, Peter Guralnick on Solomon Burke, Robert Christgau on Prince, John Jeremiah Sullivan on Axl Rose, and Greil Marcus on the rock-inspired visual artist Christian Marclay. Who knew? 

The credit, of course, goes to the volume’s editors. One is Jonathan Lethem, the novelist, critic, music enthusiast, and Pomona College professor who has often argued for the interweaving of popular and literary culture. The other is Kevin J. H. Dettmar, a fellow Pomona professor who has taught a course on the history of rock and edited The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan.

The book they’ve assembled is, to put it simply, a blast — a wild mix of the scholarly, the literary, and the chaotically unhinged. Lethem, whose latest novel is A Gambler’s Anatomy (2016), spoke to me from his home in Claremont.

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SCOTT TIMBERG: I’m going to imagine that you fell for some rock critic or rock magazine when you were quite young. Give us a sense of the first piece of rock criticism you discovered and what it gave you that you weren’t getting from other places?

JONATHAN LETHEM: So how did I first become aware of this? I think that I was probably, like a lot of people approximately my age, reading copies of Rolling Stone that were laying around. Not necessarily the fresh copy off the newsstand, even — somebody had one and it was being read and reread for, like, a year. I probably first read some of the people that became important to me in a byline innocence.

You didn’t know who Robert Christgau or Greil Marcus were?

I might have encountered any number of those “founding father” types, like Paul Nelson or Greil, in those pages. God knows, maybe I read Lester Bangs in The Village Voice without knowing I was reading him. In fact, it’s very likely that I read Christgau and Bangs in the Voice before I read anyone else. I mean, The Village Voice was a really formative thing for me in general. Culturally, politically, it was being generated in the city I lived in, and I identified with it overmuch. I also, in that innocent sense, thought of it as all one voice. I didn’t untangle the mass …

Right, like The Economist?

Right. And for that reason, it was probably Christgau, with his handy little marketing device — the “Consumer Guide” — who became the first individual voice to me, because I remember reading those. He did tend to write in that somewhat gnomic, infra-referential style. I mean, he kind of invents the rock-critic-talking-knowingly-to-another-rock-critic mode. Some of it was really opaque to me, but I was turned on by his tone anyway, and what I understood. And I was also angry on behalf of a hero — you know, like, “You said that about Lou Reed?!” And so, he was an individual before I figured out there a was field of individuals.

But the clarion cry for me, announcing that this was a field of letters, came when I ran across a copy of the anthology Stranded, edited by Greil Marcus. I mean, that was the Bible for me, because suddenly these people were declaring themselves in very individual terms.

Right, they’re picking a single album.

Here’s the album I would take to a desert island. And they were also invited by the terms of that anthology to write very personally. So there are a lot of personal essays in there, and a lot of overt or implicit manifestos — why this stuff matters and why it matters to me. It’s like a series of defiant self-declarations, and I identified with that book and those voices overmuch. I mean, just the other night, celebrating this anthology, I was hanging out with Ariel Swartley, and I was like, “You’re there at the start for me.”

I don’t think she even understood how important that book could’ve been to a kid — it’s a flare that lights up an entire implicit landscape of these general voices that preceded my own coming of age. And then suddenly you have this trail to follow. You know, she likes music that either I like or might like — “Wait, I’d better figure out what Astral Weeks is…”

And if you’re a fan of music writing when you’re young enough, and in my era [the 1970s] — pre-YouTube, there’s no streaming services — there’s reciprocity. You’re discovering two landscapes, because the writing is teaching you about music you have to find and investigate. It’s very, very hard for younger people to reproduce the condition by which someone like you or me comes into their musical appetite … Where there are a series of clues lying around, but you might read about a song or an album and have to wait five or 10 years before you find out what it actually sounds like.

Yeah, yeah, that’s a really good point I hadn’t considered. So you have this sort of literary performance happening with these writers. I remember reading about Richard and Linda Thompson and The Velvet Underground and Curtis Mayfield, but living in the suburbs in the ’80s, I was never going to hear that stuff.

You formed an implicit interest that was unfulfilled — it was like knowing what sex was, and not getting any.

I was in some way advantaged; my parents had a good record collection, up to a point. I could go downstairs and put on my mother’s copy of Let It Bleed, which I still own. And I also lived in New York City, so I could start to expand my field of operation more rapidly than a suburban kid. So these languages were more than just a literature — they were like a seeing-eye dog, taking a blind person into a landscape in which they were eager to make contact, but lacked a lot of tools.

I was growing up inside something — a bohemian demimonde, a counterculture, the disappointed back-end of a counterculture; it was the early ’70s and my parents’ hippie dream was in collapse. And I was a kind of mongrel — I’m not gonna try to exaggerate that, I was awarded all the privilege — but I identified as a marginal: half-Quaker, half-Jewish, hippie, public school, inner-city, politically leftist, even as a Brooklynite …

Note to millennials: Brooklyn wasn’t cool.

No — it was a place to get out of.

The bottom-line is that the defiance that I identified then is very common now — I believed in comic books and the music coming out of my radio, and trash genres like science fiction … What I heard in those voices — those writers assembled in Stranded, like Ariel Swartley, Ellen Willis, Christgau, and Marcus himself — was an assertion that what they loved, what they had assembled their identities around, wasn’t disposable; it was real culture. Again, that’s so ascendant now. But it used to be, like, “You’re going to write a serious essay about stuff that most people are embarrassed about?”

So I could brandish these things; I could wear then on my sleeve. These people weren’t just saying that The Velvet Underground was great. They were saying, “It tells me who I am and if you let it into your life it might tell you who you are.”

Your description of growing up in Brooklyn and responding to these voices reminds me that memoir and the autobiographical essay form a part of your and Kevin’s anthology. Perhaps especially the pieces by women writers, who wove together the personal, musical, and political.

I think Paul Williams articulated that there’s nothing to do with rock ’n’ roll other than give yourself over to it completely. It demands that you change your life, and it’s concurrent with other ideas about self and politics and gender. It can be self-remaking.

Your book has at least two pieces on the Beatles. These guys have been written about a lot, and for a long time. But I’m wondering if there’s any way to characterize the body of work around them? Do they bring out the best in their chroniclers?

I think there are three pieces — the Richard Poirier, the Geoffrey O’Brien, and Devin McKinney’s absolutely marvelous paranoid investigation of the intersection between Manson and the Beatles; I love it to death.

I got to play a rock critic in a book I wrote called The Fortress of Solitude. And it’s like, if you cast an actor as a journalist, he might get some assignments in journalism. I’m very proud of my dabbling, but every writer in this book has given more of themselves to this vocation than I ever could; I have a pre-existing condition called fiction.

So one big sweeping thought … This is totally stolen, but the insight that cracked open the British Invasion for me — Beatles, Stones, Kinks — was when someone said, “It’s kinda like French New Wave.” Europeans mirroring back to Americans something from their own vernacular culture, with the self-conscious bracketing of art around it. And so what you get in that moment is this explosive double-ness, where that power and value of 1950s rock ’n’ roll is reproduced and reignited for an audience that didn’t know how to stay connected to Buddy Holly. A giant bracket of artiness is put around it, which could lead to all kinds of ponderousness — and did. But it’s also very invigorating and alert and enlivening: this stuff is, like, primal and these are incredible Pop artifacts that have a plastic, self-conscious quality we can admire formally. And that was something the writers could latch onto.

Seems to me that the new seriousness of the Beatles — beginning with, say, Rubber Soul — as well as similar transformations by Dylan and the Stones, made newspapers and magazines realize there was something substantial happening here, that they could neither ignore it nor treat it like a kid’s craze, like a hula hoop.

Sure, but also younger people in general were driving the culture in ways that were unnerving and uncanny and elusive. The music was a kind of a visible wedge — something you could grab onto.

Yes — it was more pressing to find some smart person to crack the code on the new music of the mid- and late ’60s, in contrast to Elvis or even something as rich as Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly. This stuff was coded and layered and complex — you needed a guide to it.

It really is worth saying: There’s just no serious writing about Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly during the period of their heyday. Zero. We’re not saying, “It’s not quite good enough for the anthology.” It’s zero. No one would have dreamed of doing that.

And a really important division in this book — it’s invisible until you put it in focus — is between writing done upon the release of cultural objects with writing done in vast retrospect. Those are two very different kinds of writing.

One thing that struck me — as someone who grew up with New York writers, reading The Village Voice and Rolling Stone, which was founded in San Francisco but moved to New York in 1977 — was how California-centric the collection was. Did you make an effort, as Claremont-dwelling college professors, to include West Coast voices?

With all the attention to diversity, we never considered East–West Coast diversity — until afterward, when we thought about authors to invite to a party. Then we realized, “Oh my God, everyone’s in New York.” A lot of the book is in New York because it’s where the publishing was.

A lot of our readers know your work, but will have less familiarity with Kevin’s. He’s edited a book on Dylan and has also written, I think, a 33 1/3 book on Gang of Four’s first album. What did he bring to the table?

Well, first of all, he instigated the book. He was teaching a course on rock writing. He’s also got a monograph called Is Rock Dead?, and he’s now part of a consortium that edits 33 1/3. He was editor, for a time, of an academic journal on popular music. So he’s got a particular provenance. He was thinking of it initially as a teaching anthology for a course on rock writing, which he wished he’d had. I hope that origin story …

… doesn’t make it sound boring?

Yes — invite people to condemn it as academic writing or as a boring textbook. But that’s where the conversation started. In the introduction, we’re dodgy about the idea of canon formation, because it’s too young a discipline; too many of these writers are still alive, and the horizon of 50 years is too short. But the reason we’re being dodgy is that working for the Library of America obviously raises that specter. It’s in the room, so we need to dispel it to some extent. But yeah, we’re kind of saying, “This is part of the American literary tradition now.”

The involvement of the Library of America means we had to slight some writers: a lot of the key conversations in the birth period of this kinds of writing were transatlantic. There was Nik Cohn, for instance, whom we couldn’t include …

Did you and Kevin need to restrain yourselves in choosing to feature only a single piece about Dylan?

One thing that doesn’t need pointing out is that almost everyone has a feeling or opinion on Bob Dylan. And you could have made an almost identical roster of writers on Dylan alone. But that’s also been done a whole bunch, and wasn’t going to give the wide view. The thing about Dylan is that he’s such an overwhelming and intricate subject. Dylan Dylanizes just about anything that comes into his orbit.

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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.


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